Joan Didion was one of the best chroniclers of life in California. The essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem make up the best portrait of California in the 1960’s that you’re likely to ever find.
I hope people are still reading them fifty years from now. The non-fiction essay is typically so tied up with its own time that it fails to remain widely read after its initial shelf-life has expired. Even the great ones, like George Orwell for example. How many people do you know who’ve read more than Shooting An Elephant? Besides me?
Ms. Didion’s essays in the final section of Slouching Towards Bethlehem are mostly about California, mostly about a California that has already passed away. Notes from a Native Daughter describes the Sacramento Valley of her childhood, a place that was already fast disappearing when the essay was written in the 1960’s, it’s long gone today. Rock of Ages describes life on Alcatraz shortly after the prison there was closed, long before it was reopened as a tourist attraction. Notes on Los Angeles is still closer to the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler than the city of upscale hipster neighborhoods you’ll find there today.
While these final essays are not as strong as the ones featured earlier in the book, they are still very good. Sometimes, while dwelling on the past, Ms. Didion comes close to predicting the future. For example, this bit certainly reminded me of the Rodney King riots of 1992, which happened almost 30 years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem was written.
The burning city is Los Angeles deepest image of itself…at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would end.
Past is prologue as someone famous once said.
I’m keeping my copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. On the off-chance that I’m still around fifty years from now, I’ll be 102 if I am, I’d like to give them another read.
Joan Didion is simply terrific.